Ediza Lake
Josh Wray/Courtesy of Mammoth Lakes Tourism
Ediza Lake
Ediza Lake, in the Ansel Adams Wilderness (Photo: Josh Wray/Courtesy of Mammoth Lakes Tourism)

13 Lesser-Known Public Lands Adventures

It’s becoming harder to find a slice of nature all to yourself. But there are plenty of secluded sweet spots around the country if you know where to look. From national monuments and lakeshores to forests and scenic waterways, here are some stunning, uncrowded wildlands that are definitely worth exploring.

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America has more than 828 million acres of public lands, an incredible boon to adventurers in every state. This month, when the crowds flock to the major national parks, we’ve got our eye on trips to 13 public lands worthy of explorations that feel truly wild and free. From caving, canoeing, and camping to mountain biking, birding, and swimming, you can relish these areas without pressure or reservations.

Ansel Adams Wilderness

Location: Straddling the Great Western Divide of the Sierra Nevada, California

Why we chose it: When summertime crowds make a beeline for Yosemite Valley, serious hikers, anglers, and backpackers skip the more popular national park in favor of this 232,000-acre expanse of sky-high granite ridges, sparkling alpine lakes, and high-altitude meadows bursting with wildflowers.

Favorite adventures: I’m a massive fan of any trails leading toward the toothy spires of the Ritter Range, most of which lies within the Ansel Adams Wilderness, and this area boasts 350 miles of those trails. Looking for a workout to make your calves burn? Grab a permit and strike out on a seven-mile (each way) overnight trip to the serrated fins surrounding Minaret Lake, with a quick detour to marvel at Devils Postpile. Prefer a mellow afternoon stroll to an idyllic fishing spot? Motor up to Lake Thomas A. Edison for sweeping Sierra views and the hope of hooking some German brown trout.

Where to stay: If you’re driving up from the west, check out the quirky Mono Hot Springs Resort (open late May to early November), which boasts a restaurant serving buffalo and wild salmon, private soaking tubs, and a smattering of rustic 1930s-era cabins to rent (from $155). Most visitors stay in the eastern-side mountain mecca of Mammoth Lakes; try the Tamarack Lodge (from $99) or, if you’re feeling spendy, the elegant Westin Monache Resort (from $241). Alternatively, post up at the Forest Service campgrounds (from $28), usually open May through October and abutting phenomenal trails to Shadow Lake and equestrian-friendly Agnew Meadows.

Don’t miss: Go for the cheap and fantastic monster burritos at Latin Market Taqueria in Mammoth Lakes. —Emily Pennington

Sleeping Bear Dunes and the waters of Lake Michigan
Sleeping Bear Dunes and the waters of Lake Michigan (jvalkki/Getty)

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Location: 25 miles west of Traverse City, Michigan

Why we chose it: Rising 450 feet out of Lake Michigan, the ever shifting Sleeping Bear Dunes are like a four-square-mile sandbox. Hike to the top to find cooling breezes and killer views of the turquoise water below. While the dunes and sugar-fine golden sandy beaches are the national lakeshore’s centerpieces—and lake levels have dropped over the past three years, which means more shorefront to spread out on—two remote offshore islands add thousands more acres of wilderness ideal for any camper educated in backcountry etiquette and safety.

Favorite adventures: On the mainland, the 22-mile (mostly asphalt) Heritage Trail runs the length of the park and is a fun way to navigate it via foot, bike, or in-line skates. Or opt for the Alligator Hill Trail, a nine-mile network of loops on natural surfaces. Your reward is a view of the third-largest of the Great Lakes from the top of the dunes. Shifting sand has almost buried Old Indian Trail, but if the prospect of having an isolated beach to yourself sounds unbeatable, plow along the 2.5-mile path. For a watery perspective, rent a stand-up paddleboard at Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak in Empire.

Where to stay: From the village of Leland, take a 90-minute ferry ride ($45) to North Manitou Island. Originally settled in the mid-1840s, and at its height home to 300 residents, the 15,000-acre island has deciduous forests, two lakes, its own sand dunes, and impressively intact abandoned homesteads surrounded by cherry and apple orchards that still bear fruit. Wilderness camping (from $10) more than 300 feet away from the shoreline is allowed, but open fires are prohibited.

Don’t miss: Take a dip in the lake, then dress up to celebrate at the restaurant Blu in Glen Arbor, which welcomes diners with white linen tablecloths, a changing menu accompanied by a global wine list, and elegant views of Sleeping Bear Bay and the Manitou Islands. —Stephanie Pearson

Sunrise at Cape Lookout National Seashore
Sunrise at Cape Lookout National Seashore (Alicia Bock/Stocksy)

Portsmouth Island, Cape Lookout National Seashore

Location: Outer Banks, North Carolina

Why we chose it: We like the wild, throwback vibe of this national seashore. Although Portsmouth is part of the popular Outer Banks archipelago, it’s completely undeveloped, aside from a late-1700s ghost town, and accessible only via private boat or a ferry from the town of Atlantic. The island is constantly being reshaped by storms, but what stands are roughly 20 miles of dunes, tall grass, and open beach, about a mile at its widest. You’ll probably have it all to yourself. “It’s too remote and adventurous to attract a lot of people,” says Bob Chestnut, of the Ride the Wind surf shop on nearby Ocracoke Island, three miles from Portsmouth’s northern tip. “There aren’t too many places like this on the East Coast.”

Favorite adventures: Bring your surfcasting gear, a tent, a stand-up paddleboard, and a surfboard. The entire island is lined with gentle beach breaks to surf or fish, and the sound side, where tidal creeks wend through trees and marsh grass, offers SUP and fishing excursions away from the windy ocean side.

Where to stay: Camping is your only option. It’s unlimited and free, but pitch your tent between the high-tide line and the dunes (not on or behind them). Cruise the beach in your four-wheel drive (get a permit, also free, through Recreation.gov) until you find the perfect stretch. Bring plenty of food and drinking water, as well as a shovel and traction boards in case your truck gets stuck in the sand.

Don’t miss: Get the shrimp burger at White Point Take-Out, a seafood shack a mile south of Morris Marina, where you’ll catch the ferry. Order it with slaw. —Graham Averill

Indian Tunnel at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
Indian Tunnel at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (Courtesy Visit Idaho)

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve

Location: Southern Idaho, 18 miles southwest of Arco

Why we chose it: This remote outpost (the nearest city, Idaho Falls, is 84 miles east) has terrain reminiscent of Hawaii’s fascinating volcanic areas, complete with blackened lava tubes and cinder cones. The ancient landscape was formed by eruptions along the Great Rift—the most recent more than 2,000 years ago—and today the landscape’s lunar-like craters and caves are a major draw; in fact, NASA’s Apollo 14 astronauts trained here for their mission to the moon in 1971. Now a designated International Dark Sky Park, this monument is a brilliant place for stargazing.

Favorite adventures: Drive the scenic seven-mile Loop Road for a grand tour. Then park and hike the 1.6-mile out-and-back Caves Trail, accessible via the Loop Road, where you can explore four of the park’s lava tubes. Bring a headlamp, wear sturdy shoes, and pick up a free permit at the visitor center before entering a cave. Afterward, scramble 160 feet up Inferno Cone, also on the Loop Road, for panoramic views of the surrounding Pioneer Mountains.

Where to stay: The 42-site Lava Flow Campground ($15) is the only place to spend the night in the park, and it’s first come, first served. Otherwise, book the farmhouse-style three-bedroom BoLo Bungalow (from $155) in Carey, 24 miles west. The mountain town of Ketchum, 60 miles northwest of the park entrance, has more accommodations.

Don’t miss: Order a plate of fried pickles at Pickle’s Place in Arco. If you’re into stellar skies, the Idaho Falls Astronomical Society hosts occasional star parties within the monument, complete with telescopes and astronomers to help you navigate the wonders of the night. —Megan Michelson

Dungeness Spit
Dungeness Spit (wanderluster/Getty)

Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge

Location: Olympic Peninsula, Washington

Why we chose it: The refuge includes the Dungeness Spit, at 5.5 miles the longest natural sand spit in North America. Walking out on it places you in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where you will find countless pieces of driftwood, cobblestones moved by glaciers during the last ice age, and flotsam washed up from Canada. Other draws are the weather, birding, and the views. While nearby Olympic National Park receives 12 feet of rain per year, the Dungeness Spit is protected by the Olympic rain shadow, meaning you’re bound to get sun. Of keen interest to birdwatchers, the shores are visited by more than 250 avian species. And on cloudless days, you will have epic views of 10,781-foot Mount Baker.

Favorite adventure: Mine was taking my four-month-old and two-year-old camping and hiking here and watching the bigger sibling crawl and walk on giant driftwood logs. Anyone who is up for the 11-mile round-trip hike will want to check out the lighthouse at the end of the spit; it’s been in operation since 1857.

Where to stay: Dungeness Recreation Area County Park, adjacent to Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, has 66 forested campsites ($30). The mile-long trail along the bluff is great for viewing passing cargo ships and sailboats.

Don’t miss: Take a ferry ($43 round trip) as part of your drive here. The 35-minute ride from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, with another hour and a half to the spit, offers gorgeous views of the Olympic Peninsula and Seattle skyline. You’ll also have the chance to see orcas while sipping on a hoppy Washington beer from Pike Brewing Company and eating a bowl of Ivar’s clam chowder. —David Gladish

A rider on the Chessman Loop
A rider on the Chessman Loop (Courtesy Visit Helena, Montana)

Helena–Lewis and Clark National Forest

Location: Helena, Montana

Why we chose it: Covering a 2.8-million-acre swath of Montana on both sides of the Continental Divide, this forest features islands of mountain ranges and a stretch of the Missouri River. It almost fully surrounds the town of Helena, so it’s a favorite of the state capital’s anglers, hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers, and gravel cyclists.

Favorite adventures: Helena is a rising star on the gravel scene, thanks to seemingly endless interconnected Forest Service roads. A local favorite is the 35-mile Chessman Loop, which starts downtown, winds through an old ghost town and into the Elkhorn Mountains, circles the Chessman Reservoir, and then cruises through another ghost town before rolling down Grizzly Gulch and back to Helena. For a more torturous ride, try the 93-mile Last Chance Graveler route: it, too, heads into the Elkhorn Mountains, but you will climb 10,000 feet before returning to town.

Where to stay: If hotels are in your budget, two properties—the DoubleTree by Hilton Helena Downtown and Best Western Premier Great Northern Hotel—cater to cyclists with thoughtful amenities: bike storage and wash stations. Alternatively, pitch a tent at one of eight campgrounds surrounding Canyon Ferry Lake (from $15) east of town.

Don’t miss: Grab a juicy, delicious hamburger at Old Salt Outpost inside the Gold Bar. The grass-fed beef, along with the buns, salad, fried potatoes, and accompanying kombucha, are all locally sourced. —S.P.

Grand River National Grassland
Grand River National Grassland (Chad Coppess)

Grand River National Grassland

Location: Northwestern South Dakota

Why we chose it: The Dakota Prairie Grasslands sprawl across both North and South Dakota, and while all four sections are worth exploring, we recommend starting with the 155,000-acre Grand River National Grassland, at the confluence of the North and South Forks of the eponymous river. The wide-open space, strewn with wildflowers and graced with enormous skies, was once the hunting ground of nomadic Plains Indians tribes—and the territory where trapper Hugh Glass (portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant) was mauled by a grizzly bear in 1823. The grizzlies are long gone, but miles of trails, lakes, rivers, and streams are still yours to roam.

Favorite adventures: The seven-mile gravel Blacktail Trail loop is open to cyclists, hikers, and horseback riders. It affords excellent views of the landscape, rolling up, down, and through mixed-grass prairies and badlands formations. The Shadehill Reservoir, built in 1951 by the Bureau of Reclamation just downriver from the confluence, offers swimming, fishing for walleye, catfish, and bass, and paddling on one of the rare large bodies of water in the region. The real spectacle happens at dawn and dusk, when the subtle yellow hues of the prairie meet a flaming orange and pink sky.

Where to stay: Shadehill Recreation Area, on the shore of the reservoir, provides 85 campsites (from $26), seven cabins ($55), and a three-bedroom group lodge that can sleep up to 12 ($280).

Don’t miss: Nearby Lemmon (population 1,148) has an impressive art scene, from the Petrified Wood Park and Museum to the Kokomo Inn, home to metal sculptor John Lopez. It also has various unique establishments ideal for passing a lovely late afternoon: Wild Oats, for instance, is co-owned by a cosmetologist, so you can order a cocktail at the bar, hop into the adjoining salon for a trim, then return to the restaurant for a grilled walleye dinner. —S.P.

Silver Glen Springs in Ocala National Forest
Silver Glen Springs in Ocala National Forest (Michael Warren/Getty)

Ocala National Forest

Location: Ocala, Florida

Why we chose it: Minutes north of the theme parks of Orlando lies one of just three national forests in Florida, a 600-square-mile oasis of subtropical vegetation, sand pines, rivers, and lakes. Many come to experience the turquoise spring waters, which are 72 degrees year-round; but in the winter, the only real crowds to speak of are the manatees, who escape the ocean to certain springs for the relative warmth. Blue Spring State Park, a designated manatee refuge, hosted a record 724 of the creatures in 2022 and continues to be an ideal spot to watch them play.

Favorite adventures: The standout paddle adventure in Ocala National Forest is the seven-mile Juniper Run; this narrow blue spring wends through a tree canopy that eventually opens up to grasslands speckled with sand boils, spring seeps, and plenty of wildlife like alligators, rare birds, and armadillos. On land, trekkers can tackle the 66 miles of the Florida Scenic Trail winding through the forest, bicyclists have hundreds of miles of roads to explore, and mountain bikers will like the singletrack of the Paisley Woods Trail, a 22-mile loop.

Where to stay: Enter the annual lottery to stay in the remote Sweetwater Cabin ($1,265 per week), built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, operated by the Forest Service, and located on its own private spring near Juniper Run access points. The cabin sleeps up to 12 and comes with two canoes.

Don’t miss: Riverboat tours at both Blue Spring State Park and Silver Springs State Park are great ways to view wildlife and the mangrove ecosystems. The vessels, which are wheelchair accessible (though call the parks ahead of time), allow people with limited mobility a chance to experience some of the best sights of Ocala National Forest. —Mardi Fuller

Goblin Valley in the southern San Rafael Swell
Goblin Valley in the southern San Rafael Swell (Courtesy Visit Utah)

San Rafael Swell

Location: South-central Utah, 16 miles west of Green River

Why we chose it: When people think of visiting southern Utah, the state’s famous Mighty Five parks—Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion—often come to mind for their otherworldly landscapes and red-rock adventures, but the lesser-known San Rafael Swell is prized by those who want to avoid the crowds. This approximately 217,000-acre expanse of domed rock is shot through with rivers, slot canyons, gorges, buttes, and hoodoos, and dotted with juniper bushes and seasonal desert wildflowers. Hike, scramble, mountain-bike, horseback-ride, and explore abandoned mines, Jurassic fossils, Native pictographs and petroglyphs, and 500-foot-high sandstone formations.

Favorite adventures: A family Easter camping trip to Little Wild Horse Canyon in the southern Swell stands out as one of my best childhood memories. My parents hid our treats in the swoops and swirls of the stone formations, and my brother and I had the world’s best Easter-egg hunt, running among the rocks and bushes. Another highlight is the 1,000-foot-deep Little Grand Canyon, in the northern Swell: when the San Rafael River is low, you can hike 14 miles along its banks; when it’s high, you can float the canyon—no permit or outfitter needed for the gentle Class I rapids.

Where to stay: There are a few minimally developed campgrounds in the Swell. The Wedge Overlook campground (free) above the Little Grand Canyon has spectacular views; camp in designated sites and not on the rim trail leading there. The Swell is BLM land, so dispersed camping opportunities are endless, with early spring and fall the prime times—summer is too hot. Plan to pack everything you need both in and out, and leave no trace. Nearby Goblin Valley State Park is a certified International Dark Sky Park, and while the heavens above the Swell might not share the designation, the stargazing is comparable.

Don’t miss: After a long day of hiking, the burgers and pizza at Chow Hound in Green River hit the spot. —Victoria Carter

The outfall of the Allagash River near Fort Kent, Maine
A stretch of the Allagash River near Fort Kent, Maine (llflan/iStock/Getty)

Allagash Wilderness Waterway

Location: Northern Maine

Why we chose it: This canoe trail down the Allagash River begins at Chamberlain Lake and flows 92 miles north to the Canadian border, linking a series of large lakes within the north woods. Allagash means “bark stream” in Abenaki, the language of the Penobscot people. In 1857, with the help of Joe Polis, a Penobscot guide, Henry David Thoreau paddled the route, later writing about the journey in The Maine Woods, and the river was eventually used to transport timber to sawmills farther south. In 1970, in an effort to balance logging, recreation, and preservation, the Allagash became the country’s first federally protected, state-managed waterway within the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Although the river is a classic paddling route, its length and remoteness prevent crowding. Commercial timberland still surrounds the waterway but not much else does. New paddlers should hire a guide, as the route requires navigation skills across large, often windy lakes and Class II rapids.

Favorite adventures: Expect a stunningly quiet and beautiful paddle down this network of rivers, ponds, and lakes, and keep an eye out for wildlife, especially larger animals like moose. Drop a line for wild native brook trout, lake trout, and lake whitefish. Most people put in at Churchill Dam and take out at Allagash Village for a shorter trip of 65 miles over five to seven days, avoiding the largest three headwater lakes. The full adventure entails seven to ten days from Chamberlain Lake to the St. John. Unsure of the best approach? Allagash Guide Service, based in the town of Allagash, offers trips, canoe rentals, and shuttle service—including pack transfers around the trickiest rapids, so you don’t have to worry about submerging your gear.

Where to stay: Maintained campsites along the river are first come, first served and include a picnic table, a tall pole for tarp rigging, and an outhouse ($13 per person, which can be paid at any of the five North Maine Woods ranger stations).

Don’t miss: A short walk from the Cunliffe Depot campground are early-20th-century logging and lumber artifacts, including a tramway and two rusting locomotives. On your way out of the north woods, be sure to stop at the Swamp Buck Restaurant and Lounge in Fort Kent for a large plate of poutine, a Quebecois staple consisting of French fries, cheese curds, and brown gravy. —M.F.

Winner Creek Gorge Trail in Chugach National Forest
Winner Creek Gorge Trail in Chugach National Forest (Jody Overstreet)

Chugach State Park

Location: Anchorage, Alaska

Why we chose it: This 495,000-acre state park is known as Anchorage’s backyard, because most of it sits within municipal boundaries. Bordered by the waters of Turnagain Arm on one side and mountains on the other three, the park is an incredible playground of lakes, rivers, glaciers, and temperate rainforest. Think of it as the most accessible piece of the Last Frontier.

Favorite adventures: Start small and head 25 miles northwest of Anchorage to trek the 1.8-mile (round-trip) Thunder Bird Falls Trail, which dead-ends at a 200-foot cascading waterfall. Just south of Anchorage, at the Eagle River Nature Center, learn about—and potentially spot—brown and black bears, moose, and other wildlife that frequent the center’s trails. Eklutna Lake, with its 15 miles of shoreline and views of Eklutna Glacier, is an awe-inspiring place to paddle. It’s also surrounded by 26 miles of well-marked hiking and biking trails. Lifetime Adventures offers guided trips in the area, as well as boat and bike rentals. There are plenty of overnight trips to take, like bikepacking or camping along the 21.5-mile (out-and-back) Mystery Pass Trail, which requires nearly 5,000 feet of climbing to reach Longspur Falls.

Where to stay: Bird Creek Campground, 20 miles south of Anchorage via the Seward Highway, has two cabins ($100) and 24 campsites ($20). Fish for salmon, hike the 2.5-mile Bird Ridge Trail to the top for panoramic views of Turnagain Arm and the Kenai Mountains in the distance, or stay at camp and watch for beluga whales cruising offshore.

Don’t miss: Nathan Bentley, the chef and owner of Altura Bistro in Anchorage, was a 2023 James Beard Award finalist for Best Chef in the Northwest and Pacific. His chicken sandwich is off the charts. —S.P.

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Colorado. USA. Painted Hand Pueblo tower. Ancestral Puebloan structures built ca. AD 1200.
A structure built by the Ancestral Puebloans is an attraction in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. (Scott Smith/Getty)

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Location: Southwest Colorado, ten miles west of Cortez

Why we chose it: While crowds flock to Mesa Verde National Park, just to the southeast, the historic sites at Canyons of the Ancients are equally stunning and reflect the same time period, dating back 10,000 years. In fact, this 176,000-acre monument has the highest density of archaeological relics in the nation. Its 30,000 Indigenous artifacts include rock art, cliff dwellings, and remnants of Ancestral Puebloan sweat lodges. The BLM recently opened and installed signage for a few new sites that were previously unmarked and hard to find, so there’s even more to explore.

Favorite adventures: Mountain-bike or hike the 6.5-mile Sand Canyon Trail, which passes by beautiful geologic structures and boasts striking desert views. The Sand Canyon Pueblo, one of the area’s largest prehistoric settlements, is adjacent to the northern trailhead. Just remember to tread lightly and leave no trace—these are delicate landmarks.

Where to stay: Although Canyons of the Ancients has no designated campgrounds, hike-to backcountry camping is allowed outside the archaeological sites. The nearby Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch (from $280) has added two unique guesthouses, Star Tower and Sky Kiva, constructed to resemble shelters from bygone days. The owners know a lot about local archaeology, so arrive with questions.

Don’t miss: Go wine tasting at Sutcliffe Vineyards on the western outskirts of Cortez. The lush winery has been growing grapes in the rugged landscape for nearly 30 years. Bring an afternoon picnic and pair it with a glass or two. —M.M.

Swift River at Rocky Gorge Scenic Area
Swift River at Rocky Gorge Scenic Area (Praveen P.N./Getty)

Swift River

Location: White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

Why we chose it: This national forest is best known for its peaks—especially Mount Washington—and dramatic fall colors, but in the southern part of the woods sits an overlooked treasure. The Swift River runs nearly the length of the popular Kancamagus Highway east toward the town of Conway along beautifully rocky, forested scenery with great hikes, fishing, and swimming holes. Anglers head to the clear pools and tributaries of the Upper Swift for brook trout. Downstream, fun seekers enjoy summer dips at the Lower Falls Recreation Site. Explore the many trails that start along the river and curve among waterfalls and dense foliage.

Favorite adventure: About to set off on a backpacking trip one hot summer day, a friend and I pulled off the Kanc and walked down a short trail to a stretch of river with a deep eddying pool and large smooth rocks we could slide down amid the clear, cool water. It was the best river swimming I’ve ever done.

Where to stay: There are several campgrounds along the river between Conway and Lincoln, 36 miles away to the west, including Jigger Johnson (first come, first served, $25). If you’re backpacking in the White Mountains, there’s plenty of primitive camping among the many trails.

Don’t miss: In autumn, enjoy a leisurely drive down the Kancamagus once the leaves have turned every shade of yellow, rust, and scarlet. It’s as immersive an experience as plunging into the cool water of the Swift. No matter the season, start your adventure with a doughnut from Leavitt’s Country Bakery in Conway. —V.C.

From July/August 2023 Lead Photo: Josh Wray/Courtesy of Mammoth Lakes Tourism